22 April 2022

Writing a PI

The first real novel I wrote could bear the label "in the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, and McDonald." Nick Kepler did have a lot in common with the Op, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer. Yet, unlike those three, I actually immersed myself in Sue Grafton, Robert Parker's first ten or so Spenser novels (After that, Parker was just having fun with the characters), and dabbling a bit in Elvis Cole. Of the three, I liked Kinsey Millhone the best. She was a loner who, despite protestations of having no life, had a more interesting personal life than the other two. Really, I've had Amstel. It's not that great. Neither is Rolling Rock. Sorry, Spenser.

Being a noob, I didn't realize that all I was doing was driving this year's less impressive model of a classic. Sure, I was driving a Mustang, but was it the forgettable eighties Mustang? Or the Pinto with "Mustang II" slapped on the side? (I actually owned one of those. We shall never speak of it again!!!) Really, Nick was more like the 1990s Mustang - sleek, powerful, but lacking the soul the original and New Millennium versions had. Nick swapped out blues for the jazz of earlier PIs. He had a psycho helper a la Joe Pike, Hawk, and Bubba, but he was a minor character among several. He shared a working arrangement with Kinsey, scoring office space from his former employer in the same way. So... Different. Right?

Well, I come not to bury the PI. People are still churning them out, seeking a new spin on the knight errant. The day of the thriller has also brought story tropes that require the archetype change. And besides, I've met a few PIs over the years. The one I met in the 90s while working at the Computer Stuporstore (which we shall also not speak of again) had a vastly different approach to his job than the lady who knocked on my door looking for a woman who lived here before I bought the house.

By the time I wrote the third Kepler novel, though, I realized it would never be traditionally published. It was time to move on. I wrote Road Rules as a dare, channeling my inner Elmore Leonard. I wrote Holland Bay, partly mourning the end of The Wire, partly because I had seen and read so much about police in the late 2000s, and partly because Christopher Nolan built a new Gotham City, prompting me to build my own city. To me, the PI was dead, despite later botching a dive into the Kindle revolution to get out those last two Kepler novels.

But would I go back? I sort of did. I wanted to know what happened to Gypsy from the short story "Roofies," wrote a novella called Gypsy's Kiss (still sort of in print), and have a novel that needs expanding about Nick facing down Katrina in New Orleans. Actually, he's facing down the aftermath and a guy who thinks he's Jim Jones. Only Nick doesn't like Flavor-Ade. 

But the New Orleans novel, still in second draft, awaits a deeper rewrite. My focus in crime has been Holland Bay and its follow-ups. 

But is the PI dead? No, he's just morphed. Again. Like he always does. One need only look at Jack Irish, by the late Peter Temple. I've been watching the Australian series on Acorn. Guy Pearce's disheveled ex-lawyer isn't really a PI per se. He's a woodworker. He's a debt collector. He's kind of a lawyer. And he spends most of is time trying to piece his life back together. (And I will never forgive the antagonist of Season 2 for destroying that beautifully restored Studebaker.) But it's hard to compete. After all, James Bond continually reinvents himself, adapting to Jason Bourne and inspiring numerous spins on the character, including female agents. Marvel dominates, and DC profitably sputters on the big screen. And let's be honest, between the return of Star Trek (literally, in a couple of weeks with Captain Pike's last crew and James T. Kirk slated to appear next season) and more Leonardesque streamers like Better Call Saul and Ozark, the PI sometimes gets relegated to supporting character or even minion.

But can he be reinvented? I don't see why not. If we ignore Mark Wahlberg's Spenser (Really, a love letter to Boston with two familiar character names slapped onto the story), Spenser or even Marlowe are the perfect vehicles for the ten-episode season format. And to be honest, I prefer this. Britain, Ireland, and Australia have done this for decades instead of the long, hard-to-maintain 26-episode system used in the US and Canada. But an updated or period-set take on either character makes a very doable way to introduce to PI to a new generation. 

Hmm... The last Holland Bay novel I wrote is written like it's a ten-episode season. And the follow-up is outlined the same. Maybe there's hope to revive Nick after all.

Sidenote: I say that both the real and fictional PI have changed. Except, one morning not long after I moved to my current home, I drove through the neighboring town of Silverton, Ohio. The PIs I've met over the years occupied suites of offices in New York City or cookie-cutter offices in suburban office parks adjacent to law practices and insurance companies. I just happened to look up on my way to pick up a pizza when I saw a second story window with pebbled glass that read "Private Investigator" and had the phone number. Don't know who the person was, male or female, old or young, white or black, but there has to be a story there. It was like Archer stepped out of a battered paperback and into our world.


  1. Jim, I agree about the series format - I much prefer the British, etc. format of 10 episodes per season. It gives enough time to dive into the characters and the plot, but not so much where by the 20th episode, you have the writers just pulling stuff of the shelf and going, "Well, it might work."

    And I think the PI will always be around, transformed in one way or another to suit the time, place, era. Especially if the PI is a knight errant. We need those, no matter what the time, just to assure us that there's hope the good guys will win.

  2. Well… I confess I had a Pinto/Capri engine in my 1970 Saab Sonett, the one that looked like a baby Stingray. Fortunately it didn’t come with Ford’s infamous exploding gas tank. The bad thing was changing the #1 spark plug– you had to loosen an engine mount. Oh, heat and New England’s road salt meant the very expensive dual exhaust had to be replaced about every other spring.

    I hadn’t thought about Wahlberg’s Spenser as a South Boston love letter, but yeah, I see that.

    I liked the City of Angels TV series (1976). Sure, it was derivative, deliberately so, but Wayne Rogers played affable Jake Axminster so differently from super-tuff Spade and Marlowe, it seemed refreshing.

    I’ve met two real-life male PIs and two real-life female PIs. Neither impressed me. The men wore that desperately divorced look and might have been trying to find romance in a bottle. The women– both lied their asses off. One signed an affidavit of service to me … at an address I no longer lived at, claiming she had completed the service to ‘her’ (Ms Leigh Lundin) by hand delivery. Uh, right.

    The other… I received a phone call saying UPS had a package returned for delivery and what was my address again? Something didn’t sound right and I wasn’t expecting a package.

    I said, “A delivery? Are you attempting service?”

    After a significant pause followed by an abashed voice, she said, “Yeah, I guess.”

    “Why didn’t you say so? I’ll accept service,” and I gave her my address.



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